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Or hear his muffled cries. As his lungs struggled and his baby heart slowed till it was no more.
Doomsday. Time to give the oral report. As soon as I walk into the classroom, my essay is inadequate and my poster lackluster. How can I do this? I slump numbly at the back of the class, watching enviously as my butterfly friends flit in with bright meadow-flower presentations. They have cobbled them together with one sleepless night when I have spent weeks. Why are theirs so beautiful?
Mr. Wagner shuffles tentatively into the classroom, like he's afraid of what the day will bring. he should be, considering my impending performance. Seeing that most of us have actually made posters, he visibly relaxes. I didn't know teachers got scared for oral reports too.
"All right, class, settle down," even though none of us are chattering, "who volunteers to go first?"
We all scan the room warily, our eyes begging someone else, anyone else, to be the first on the battlefield. Not surprisingly, Quinn raises his hand.
"Ah. Very good." Mr. Wagner exclaims, slightly shocked that a student would actually want to present. "Shall we, then?"
Quinn glides up to the front of the classroom with his business-like yet artistic poster. He then gives such a measured, well-delivered speech that he has Mr. Wagner practically in tears. It's something about the feudal system, like he told me, but I am too worried to notice. My body has started to quiver of its own accord, and it won't stop unless I close my eyes and focus completely.
Courtney goes next, strutting up with her pink poster and chattily describing medieval court styles. I would be amused, but my heart is trying to force itself out of my ribcage. Ka-thump. Ka-thump. Ka-thump.
"You've done very well so far," Mr. Wagner assures us. "Now-next?" His his eyes implore us to present. All the students shrink from his pleading gaze, hoping not to be singled out from the pack.
"All right, then. I will have to choose." He sounds unwilling, but is duty-bound as always. "Mariah--your turn--you look very well-prepared."
And that is when I realize. I have forgotten my notes. How could I do this-- they were right on the kitchen counter, ready to go. What could've happened? I was eating cereal, Dad reading the paper, Mom mixing up granola, --oh. Of course. Nobody loves a clean counter more than my mom, so into the recycling the notes went. Why didn't I check? Why couldn't I remember?
"Mariah? I know you're nervous, but you still have to present." Mr. Wagner says kindly.
"I--I--I--" The world is spinning as I walk slowly down the aisle, posters and desk and staring faces. My notes? At home, languishing in the recycling bin. Traitors.
"My notes--I don't--I left--"
"You were supposed to memorize them, you know," he reminds me gently.
My mouth won't move, my brain can't function. So many nameless faces, ready to watch a replay of Mariah's Famous Failure. Why won't they focus? With effort, I hone in on the one face that won't send me into bouts of terror. Quinn. His brow is furrowed slightly, and I can tell he's working hard to keep an encouraging expression on his face. He gives me a thumbs-up and a smile.
I stumble forward, each step taking me closer to oblivion. The class, once friendly, mindless butterflies, now watches my my every move like the predators I now remember they are. They're hungry for embarrassment, a scene, a succulent tidbit to gossip about with other pack members. They want a victim. And that is going to be me.
With quivering hands I prop my poster on the rim of the whiteboard. Flimsy card stock, it curls in on itself. I brace it with one hand and stand hesitantly beside it, the edges of my vision dominated by whirling gray-black spots. I can't do this. I can't do this.
"My report is on the process of knighthood." My voice is shaky but audible as I fix my eyes on Quinn's face. "Young boys of about ten years must going into service as pages. They will run errands, do chores, and generally act as servants. " I can visualize my notes in my head. It's just a matter of reciting them cleanly.
Then it happens. Courtney, my best friend turned lead wolf, snickers. It's very small, even covered by one manicured hand, but it is enough. I am gone, ripped into a thundercloud of memories that have not, will not let me go.
I want to scream, but the thundercloud has stolen my air, is pressing in on me from all sides, silver and shattered like the air on an afternoon two years ago. In. A. Sky. Blue. Room. His face is on every raindrop, magnified and distorted, but I know it's him, and he's coming back, but he can't, because he's gone, he's gone, he's gone...
The rain reverberates like a kettle drum in the empty space that was my brain. I have returned, but everybody has the faces of wolves, and I am twelve again. I have forgotten about the Ancient Mayans-- the habits of dolphins--the code of chivalry-- the little blue-eyed boy who we called Ryan, and all I can hear is the rain and my breathing.
In. Out. In. Out. Harsh and grotesque. Muffled. Like his in the tropical fish blankets. My stomach rebels, dry-heaves, and the poster falls from my hand. The wolves turn back into butterflies, laughing butterflies and one Austen boy as I race down the aisle and away from knights and Courtney and the sky-blue room. Away. Away. Safe now, little bear. Hibernate again. Forget. Away.
This is the first of the truly cold days at the park, and I'm glad. I want to feel the wind gnawing at my face as the cold slowly, excruciatingly, numbs my fingers till they are five useless clay logs inside my mother's hand-knitted gloves. I want to feel pain on the outside, pain to counteract my being eaten from the inside out.
This morning, you wonder. There is nothing more to say other than that the bathroom became my refuge. I stared at the faintly grimy pink tiles for twenty-three and a half minutes, till the bell rang. The toilet seat was pleasantly uncomfortable, a very good place to sit and think, or try not to.
I don't care what grade Mr. Wagner is gong to give me. I don't care what Quinn thinks. I don't care what my mother will say, about the frown lines that will creep onto her face as she crochets a doily. I don't care that Dad won't remember my project, won't ask about my day at all. I don't care. I don't care. And, I've found, I like it that way.
I watch Miguel race Gabriela down the double slide, cheating as usual, but such an innocent kind. He's grown even more, if possible, the planes of his face bonier, limbs longer, but his eyes are still the same. Dulce de leche eyes. Caramel eyes, sweet and deeper than a first-grader's should be.
Maybe I still do care. But not about the other things. Just him. I'm content to watch him give the frail Gabriela a gentle push on the swing, already taller than her. Rough as he claims to be, he loves her, I can tell. I wish I could stay and watch him forever. Nothing more.
"Mariah! I've been looking everywhere for you!" It's Quinn, damn him, sweating and shivering simultaneously after his run. I don't want to see him, isn't that clear?
"You didn't come with me after daycare!" His voice is broken, but he tries to hide it, tip-toeing across a bed of glass shards.
"What do you want?" I half-angle myself away from him, so he can't see the tear tracks on my freezing face. Why can't he just leave me alone?
"You didn't come," he repeats, "we were going to go to a movie after. Is something wrong?"
"No," I snap. "I just didn't feel like it. Mind your own business." Go away, just go away.
"Why are you acting like this? Is it because of this morning?" He's an awkward, gangling colt now, unsure of where he's stepping. No more Austen boy.
"It's not. Now leave me alone!" M voice is harsher than I meant, and he whips back like I slapped him. Something I have never seen takes control of his face, something steely and resolved. His eyes are colder than the bitter day around us.
"What's with you?" Just for a second, an American twang, what I could never teach him and have now forced from his soul.
"What's with you? Why are you bugging me like this? Now go do your stupid run!" Hurry, because tears are threatening again.
"I will." He grits, but he turns to go, he says, very softly, "The movie's off, since you don't seem to want it anymore."
"I don't care!" The final blow, please leave now I need to shrink and cave in on myself.
"Neither do I." His feet are about to hit the frosty pavement, and I am about to weep on an icy bench, but one sound brings us back together.
It is a scream.